The final home game of the Dodgers’ 2018 regular season began Sunday afternoon with Orel Hershiser, the ace of the last Dodgers club to win a championship, throwing out the first pitch on his bobblehead day. It was a reminder of what these Dodgers, a deep and talented iteration with World Series aspirations, have in front of them again, 30 years after Hershiser’s right arm helped capture a title.
But to have a shot to reclaim the National League pennant, the Dodgers must seize a playoff spot first. It’s a chase they expected to have close to completion by Sunday, but recent losses against inferior clubs have muddied their path to a sixth consecutive division title, rendering the season’s final week more important than comfortable.
The Dodgers handled their business Sunday, however, against the last-place San Diego Padres in a 14-0 rout to complete a series victory at Dodger Stadium after dropping Friday’s opener. They will head on a six-game trip to conclude the regular season, 1½ games ahead of the Colorado Rockies for first place in the NL West. The trip begins Monday against the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team they eliminated from postseason contention with Sunday’s win. Only the Rockies, also winners Sunday, remain in the race.
The magic number to clinch the division dwindled to six Sunday behind Hyun-Jin Ryu. The left-hander tossed six innings. He held San Diego to four hits, accumulated eight strikeouts, and didn’t issue a walk. He encountered his most perilous spot in the sixth inning, when Wil Myers hit a leadoff double. Ryu retired the next three batters in a row to wiggle free with a 10-run lead intact, a lead he helped build with three hits and two runs scored. It was the first time a Dodgers pitcher recorded three hits in a game since Zack Greinke in August 2015. Ryu’s batting average soared to .292.
“He’s always talked of how good of a hitter he is, and I didn’t see it for the last couple years,” manager Dave Roberts said. “But we’re seeing it now. It was fun.”
Manny Machado was batting fourth for the second game in a row after hitting second or third in his first 56 starts as a Dodger. Roberts explained he wanted to split Machado and Justin Turner with someone he could replace with a pinch-hitter to counter a reliever late in games, which would force the opposing club to use an extra reliever or gamble with an unfavorable matchup.
Machado hit a first-pitch, three-run home run in his first start in the cleanup spot Saturday. It was, Roberts said, “a signature moment,” one Machado has perhaps sought since the Dodgers acquired him from the Baltimore Orioles for the stretch run. He followed it Sunday with a solo home run on the first pitch he saw from left-hander Joey Lucchesi in the second inning. The home run was his 13th as a Dodger and 37th overall, tying a career high. Two batters later, Matt Kemp, celebrating his 34th birthday, hit a solo shot deep into the seats beyond the left-field wall for his 21st home run and 1,000th run batted in.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been able to be here in September and play for something,” said Kemp, who was three for four and fell a triple short of the cycle. “This doesn’t get old.”
Kemp led off the fourth inning with a double. Austin Barnes then hit a two-run home run. Ryu followed with his second single in as many at-bats, a hard-hit groundball up the middle Lucchesi couldn’t impede, before Chris Taylor walked to put Lucchesi in a bind. He didn’t escape. David Freese singled to drive in a scampering Ryu from second base and chase Lucchesi from the game after 3 2/3 innings.
Machado welcomed Trey Wingenter with a run-scoring single through the right side to give the Dodgers a 6-0 lead for the second consecutive day. The margin swelled to eight runs when Kemp lined a two-run single. That was ample for Ryu, whose performance continued a stellar season interrupted by a three-month stint on the disabled list because of a torn groin muscle.
Ryu has a 1.93 earned-run average in eight starts since coming off the disabled list, lowering his season mark to 2.00 in 14 outings. He has failed to pitch at least five innings once since his return. He seemingly is pitching his way into the Dodgers’ postseason rotation, emerging as a potentially vital cog in the club’s pursuit of its first World Series title in three decades.
“We talked about how important this game was,” Roberts said. “’He understands the magnitude of every start. And I’ve said it. I’ve heard it. He’s a big-game pitcher and he showed that today.”
The Dodgers need a playoff spot to extend that pursuit beyond next Sunday. Feasting on last-place clubs makes the path easier. But the 2018 Dodgers haven’t made it easy. On Sunday, they made it look that way.